The case for interval training
For a short while you will be in a lot of pain. Then you will get a very short respite. Then you go back to the pain. Sound like fun? It really is, actually. Interval training is a beast of a workout, and while professional athletes love it because of the performance benefits it brings, so too do many doctors who hail the very proven health benefits that it delivers.
Interval training isn’t really a workout at all, but rather an approach to working out. And that means it can be applied to any kind of exercise you like doing – walking, running, weights, swimming. So whether you’re a full-on gym rat or an outdoorsy type, you can stick to your routine but flip it on its head with an interval training approach.
In a nutshell, it’s all about rotating between a high-intensity period of exercise and then either a short rest or a low-intensity period of exercise. Let’s look at three quick examples:
Weights: Do a set of eight squats, eight deadlifts, and eight shoulder presses all back-to-back, then take a one-minute rest. Don’t go at a heavy weight, but rather about mid-level. Do this routine eight times.
Running: Jog at a comfortable pace for three minutes, then sprint for as long as you can (say about 30 seconds). Repeat that seven more times.
Boxing: Do heavy bag training or pad work with a three-minute round followed by a one-minute break. Again, eights sets and you’re done.
Why my physician side likes it so much
So just how does interval training do a body good? Lots of reasons. But let me share with you my top four.
1. Burning calories and losing weight: During interval training, you burn more fat, and you burn it faster compared to constant medium-intensity training. It’s the combination of aerobic and anaerobic that is at the heart of interval training. Think of a bike ride: While you’re peddling along flat ground you’re exercising aerobically (constant medium-intensity) but when you hit that short, steep hill that’s when it becomes anaerobic (short high-intensity). Both are important because during the aerobic period of your training you’re using oxygen and you’re burning fat and glycogen; while during the anaerobic (high-intensity) part of your exercise you’re using glycogen, not oxygen, and burning carbohydrates. Without getting anymore scientific than that, let’s just say you’re getting the best of both worlds here.
2. Controlling blood pressure and diabetes: There’s no doubt that regular exercise is an important factor in both preventing and treating high blood pressure (hypertension). But does incorporating interval training into your usual regime take the positive effects a step further? Well, a 2012 investigation published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease brought together numerous studies and concluded that exercise of high intensity for one-to-four minutes – with intervals for rest and recovery – is more effective than continuous moderate-intensity exercise when it comes not just to blood pressure, but to improving cardiorespiratory fitness and insulin sensitivity (an important marker for diabetes).
3. Keeping your heart healthy: Interval training really makes your heart work hard during the intense bouts – and it then helps it strengthen its recovery rate during the intervals. So the high-intensity aspect of interval training, along with the constant changing of heart rate as you switch the intensity levels of your exercise, all help to strengthen your cardiovascular system.
4. Turns you into a ‘super you’: If you already exercise regularly, then interval training is going to take you to the next level of fitness by increasing your lactate threshold. What’s this all about? Well, lactic acid builds up in the bloodstream during intense anaerobic exercise, and it’s what causes pain and fatigue when we’re pushing ourselves to the max. So by using interval training your body is moving that threshold further and further up as your performance-level increases.
If you’re not a regular exerciser or currently not in very good shape, then I am not going to suggest you jump into interval training. In that case I want you to work with a trainer until he or she decides you are good and ready. And if you haven’t had a health check in a while, that is also a must prior to starting even a light routine.
For those of you who do exercise regularly and are in good shape and health, it is still a good idea to ease into your new interval training routine. But you won’t have to wait long to up the intensity, because you’ll notice after just the first few workouts your stamina is already improving. From there you will start to enjoy the tremendous benefits of this highly effective – and addictive – form of exercise.
One thing I love about interval training is that a 25-minute workout is enough. This means just about any of us can find the time to fit one of these into our busy schedules – whether at home or on a business trip. And for the really brave, I recommend combining this type of training with intermittent fasting to truly supercharge yourself.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.